Global Policy Forum

Sierra Leone Papers Detail Rebel's Guilt


By Corinna Schuler

Christian Science Monitor
May 15, 2000

Sierra Leone's reviled rebel leader has long been described as a diamond smuggler, a briber, a shady businessman and the kidnapper of child soldiers.Now the government says it has the papers to prove it.

"He was obsessed with power and wealth," Attorney General Solomon Berewa told journalists and dignitaries at a raucous press conference this weekend. National sentiment turned against Mr. Sankoh the moment his men pulled their triggers last Monday, firing into an open crowd of demonstrators. But Mr. Berewa's announcement this weekend signalled a final end to the government's own tolerance of Sankoh - raising serious questions as to whether this country's fast-dissolving peace deal still has any hope of being salvaged.

A peace pact had granted Sankoh a place in government, but Berewa washed his hands of him. He spent two hours reading documents exposing Sankoh. One paper lists names of hundreds of RUF soldiers - rank, commander, and even "date captured," indicating Sankoh knew children were being abducted and forced to fight in his bush army, an allegation he has vigorously denied. A letter from one African tribal chief thanks Sankoh for the 1 million leones ($4,900) he sent: "I assure you everything will work in your favor in my area.''

But it is the information on diamond smuggling that provoked gasps from the press-room crowd. The country's new diamond commission was not yet operational when its freshly appointed administrator, Sankoh, quietly began selling off Sierra Leone's mineral wealth and amassing his own fortune along the way. Berewa said Sankoh penned letter after letter to foreign businessmen, inviting each of them to visit Sierra Leone "so we can consolidate all of our discussions."

"Initially, a fee of $5,000 is charged," Sankoh wrote to a contact in London, "for consultancy and unforeseen expenditure before arrival." One paper records and details 2,134 diamonds that Sankoh apparently had in his possession - 347 karats worth, said Berewa. A businessman offered to help the RUF escape a UN travel ban by sending a helicopter to the rebel-held diamond region of Kono, so "[we] could load the diamonds there, then the chopper could go to Guinea or Monrovia.'' Another letter indicates that Sankoh travelled illegally to South Africa recently to seal a deal with a company. His visa to that country has since been revoked.

"There is no more dispute," the attorney general said. "They were using diamonds to buy arms."

Despite his cutting indictments, the attorney general said there may yet be some hope for the Lomé peace accord: "The agreement is still the agreement, with Sankoh or no Sankoh." But the entire UN peacekeeping mission here - the largest in the world today - is predicated on dealing with the rebel leader. And some political analysts say it is simply irrational for the world to expect that Lomé can be revived.

When it seemed Sankoh was open to an agreement, "it was worthwhile trying," says Marina Ottaway, at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. But, "once a leader shows that he is going to flout international agreements, he should not be given a second chance. Signing another accord with him "would be a very serious mistake."

UN officials say regardless of whether Lomé can be resuscitated or not, the world body must still deal with Sankoh to at least try to secure the hostages' release. Until now, elected politicians have staunchly defended the controversial decision to forgive the RUF for waging eight years of dirty war. In exchange for peace, the government handed Sankoh blanket amnesty, a seat in government, and control of the country's new diamond commission.

But the era of reconciliation is over. "One should never trust anyone they call a rebel," President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah told a crowd of thousands that gathered for a mass funeral on Friday. In all, 19 people were slain outside Sankoh's house last Monday. "If they come again and say they genuinely and sincerely want to talk,Mr. Kabbah said of the rebels, "we will say, we made this mistake before: to trust them." His sentiments were repeated again and again by mourners.

"There is no peace to be made with Foday Sankoh," said Edward Marha, whose friend, a labor leader, was slain by the rebels on Monday. "We must annihilate him." Relatives cried hysterically Friday while friends held them back or fanned their faces furiously with the funeral pamphlet, which read: "The Fallen Heroes of Peace and Democracy."

While Sankoh's whereabouts remain a mystery, some UN officials now believe the rebel group is splintering. They hope a moderate faction will emerge, and there may be hope to salvage the Lomé accord. "The RUF is a major factor in any peace agreement," says UN chief spokesman Fred Eckhard, explaining the world body's need to seek a dialogue with Sankoh. "But as you know, Foday Sankoh has been unreachable for nearly a week. Should an alternate leadership emerge, we would be prepared to deal with them."

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